Senate Bean Soup

Navy bean soup has been a fixture on the menu in the U.S. Senate restaurant as far back as the administration of Grover Cleveland, but in 1903, Senator Fred T. Dubois of Idaho brought to passage a resolution–written by Senator Knute Nelson of Minnesota–requiring that the soup be served every day to sustain the distinguished members of that august body through the throes of deliberation.

John Egerton writes that the official recipe printed on the back of the Senate restaurant menu calls for “Michigan navy beans”, though Craig Claiborne (never one to leave well enough alone) wrote that the best bean for the soup is “a pea bean from California.” Edgerton argues that this soup is a Southern recipe, and points to the inclusion of smoked ham hocks as proof of his claim. “Does that sound like Michigan? California? Minnesota? Idaho? Of course not!” he declares, adding that it sounds more like North Carolina, Alabama, or Arkansas, where cooking with pork is a 400-year-old tradition. (Note that the District of Columbia is adjacent to Virginia.)

“Any fair and honest person seeking the creators of U.S. Senate bean soup would ask not who the senators were at the time the soup was given official status, but who the cooks were,” and in the District of Columbia the cooks in the Senate kitchen, as well as almost any other institutional kitchen in Washington, were black men and women from the South. “There ought to be a plaque somewhere in the capitol to honor those skillful citizens, their names now forgotten, who cooked bean soup in the Southern style with such a masterful touch that even the solons of the North and West came to realize that they simply could not do without it,” Egerton claims.

Fortunately for us sans sans-culottes, you don’t have to lie, buy, or storm your way into the Capitol to enjoy navy bean soup. Here’s my recipe; it’s not official by any stretch, but it’s wonderful, all the same. Pick through and wash one pound white (navy) beans, place in a pot with two smoked hocks, cover with water by half, and place in a low oven for about 2 hours. Remove the hocks and cool; throw away the rind, de-bone, chop the meat and add back to the beans along with one finely-chopped large onion sauteed in light oil with two minced cloves of garlic. You can throw in a stalk or two of minced/grated celery if you like. Add water if needed, simmer until creamy, season with pepper and salt to taste. If you don’t serve cornbread with this, you’ll go to hell.

French Market Bean Soup

Somewhere among the cuneiform tablets found scattered around Ur are bound to be recipes for bean soup, likely even soups using many types of dried beans. This particular recipe is far more recent—it’s only been around about as long as I have, which dates it to around the time Sputnik was launched—and its connection to the French Market in New Orleans is speculative at best. It’s a rich, hearty soup, good hot or cold.

No small degree of this recipe’s appeal is that you can easily make custom combinations of dried beans and parcel them out as gifts. A typical commercial mix contains calls for equal parts navy beans, pinto beans, split green and yellow peas, black-eyed peas, lentils, both baby and large limas, black beans, red beans, Great Northerns, soybeans and barley pearls, but you can use whatever combination you like in a somewhat similar measure and you call it whatever you like. My buddy Dan Vimes sends me a mix he calls Pelahatchie Peas Pot every year on the anniversary of Nixon’s resignation. Dan puts his bean blend in GI issue canteens. You can put yours in whichever moves your zen, just be sure to throw in a bouquet garni with each package.

You’ll also want to include the recipe: Place in a heavy pot a pound of beans and seasoning, with 2 quarts water, a ham joint/hock or smoked turkey neck/tail–a cup each chopped onion and celery, and a couple of dried cayenne pods. A lot of recipes will tell you to add a can of chopped tomatoes at this point, but don’t; if you do the acid in the tomatoes will take forever to cook. Bring to a boil and simmer until beans are soft, adding water if needed. At this point, you can remove meat from bone, chop and throw it back in the pot back to the pot. Sure, it’s a pain to do, but it’s a nice touch, it really is. Now is when you add canned tomatoes, either small dice or crushed, with a judicious amount of juice. Throw in two very finely minced toes of garlic, and stew for melding, about another half hour. Thicken or thin to your liking, salt and pepper to taste. Serve with cornbread or crusty wheat.